Wednesday: The Book Klatch

WEDNESDAY From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Writer = degenerate, addicted, lonely, hopeless heart from broken family? Do you have to be messed up and dysfunctional to be a great writer? Do you … Read More

By / December 6, 2006


From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Writer = degenerate, addicted, lonely, hopeless heart from broken family?

Do you have to be messed up and dysfunctional to be a great writer? Do you have to be a loner, an addict, a hopeless heart, some sort of degenerate, from a broken family? Do you have to forgo the trappings of bourgeois family life? Do you have to be dark and messy and complex? Is it possible to be a great writer with healthy relationships, 2.5 biblically named children, real estate, holiday-card mailings, and no omnipresent daily heartache to speak of? What’s the relationship between your own happiness and writing?

From: Angela Pneuman To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Happy families

Generally I’d say that the kinds of experiences you’ve had end up dictating your habits of observation—with or without your awareness. A submerged, mysterious geometry.

And there’s the experts: Tolstoy’s line about happy/unhappy families, O’Connor saying that anyone who’s lived past the age of 15 has enough material to write forever. Most writers I know—like most people I know—have led complicated lives, and why that ends up motivating some to write and others to do something else, I can’t say. It may be temperamental or economic. Writing is an affordable habit—you don’t have to buy a saxophone, pay the band, etc. Yet it takes time, and time takes money, and real estate + family + all the rest that falls under what Elisa’s calling the trappings of bourgeois family life take both time and money. Which is speaking more to the economics of the question than the psychology, I guess.

From: Stacey Richter To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Karen Russell Subject: Dark, complicated, and have lived through a time of disorder–that's eveybody

That’s a good question, Elisa. I’ve actually thought about that a lot. I do think one has to, in some degree, be dark and complicated and have suffered an early heartbreak and lived through a time of deep disorder to be driven to write—and toward a world of metaphor (though honestly, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t fit that description, no matter what they do). I say this because I think humans have a deep need to create a narrative that explains their life, where they’re going and where they’ve been as Joyce Carol Oates put it. And the more complicated the life, the writer is compelled toward more explanations—and images, connections. People who have messy, dark, disordered histories have a stronger need to put things in order, or at least try to have their say or get revenge. Even to write about joy, I believe, demands a kind of imperative—bossiness—meant to counteract the time of no joy.

But I don’t think we have to be messy in an emotional sense, or degenerates or drunks, or destructive. (I would like to say not obsessive either, but I think sustained creative work demands a certain amount of obsession.) In fact, growing up, figuring it out, and being happy is a good way to get perspective on unhappiness. My own daily happiness/unhappiness doesn’t affect my writing energy much these days. The only thing that ever made me write like mad was breaking up with a boyfriend. Being dumped! What a great motivator!

Angela has an interesting point about the economics of writing, though I did see that they’re selling flutes in Wal-Mart now.

From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Sadness and meanness and dysfunction

It does seem, though, like some measure of intensity in writing comes from resisting something “normative,” fighting the good fight against what one is supposed to do (i.e., accept what you’re told, follow a certain path, don’t disturb the peace). How do you maintain that intensity—the urge to scratch below the surface and, indeed, disturb the peace—when all is hunky-dory and Rockwellian in your own life?

My mom is always admonishing me: “Why do you have to look for the negative aspects in everything? Why do you have to articulate the worst things you see in the world and in people around you?” And now that my book is beginning to get reviewed, I’ve been fascinated (and, okay, annoyed) to see one or two (assholic) reviewers take issue with the fact that my characters aren’t all nice people. Well, um, hi: There is negativity and shit in the world! People are often not nice! Of course I’m going to look at that! The good doesn’t need inspection! It’s the sadness and meanness and dysfunction that’s interesting to me as a writer (and, incidentally, as a reader). Why on earth would one be writing (or painting or playing music or acting) if the goal was to present a happy featherbed of niceties?

But here’s my theory: It’s actually the shit-deniers who have the serious unhappiness and negativity underneath. Being comfortable enough with darkness to include it as a matter of course in one’s perspective makes for a happier person.

From: Aaron Hamburger To: Elisa Albert, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: The dark, tormented artist is overhyped

Fran Lebowitz said, “Having been unpopular in high school is not just cause for book publications.”

As Stacey points out, who out there doesn’t feel like they’ve come from a dysfunctional family? And if they don’t say so openly, then they probably feel that way on the inside and are covering up their supposed inner gloom from the rest of the world, because if everyone only knew how fucked up they were on the inside, then (so goes their reasoning) no one would like them.

All people suffer from feelings of inadequacy and depression. Artists are people who channel inner torment differently from others. Also, because (if we’re lucky) we don’t have nine-to-five day jobs, we do our work at irregular hours, which causes people around us to say, “Oh my God, that writer is a slave to her art!”

I think the dark, tormented artist type is overhyped, especially with writers—because most writers are pretty nerdy, not cool enough to have a J.T. Leroy image. Maybe that’s why I was so amused when “he” turned out to be a fake. He and his shtick were too theatrical to be real.

From: Karen Russell To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter Subject: Enough with the tragic backstories

Rats! I feel like the walleyed kid wearing a paper dunce cap in the corner. Sorry about my delinquency on yesterday’s email—no access to a computer machine last night.

If it’s OK, I just wanted to backtrack a bit and thank you guys for your wildly encouraging ruminations on the story/novel divide. Stacey, I had never thought about the difference between those “talker” novelists and “listener” poets and short-story writers, and I think it’s a really interesting lens on the writing process. I’ve got to put myself in Elisa’s “self-loathing listener” category. Right now, I miss the productive constraints of a story. One of the things I love so much about the short story is that you can turn that thing in your palm like a geode, and sort of have at it with this lapidarian precision. With a story, even when it’s scary and messy, I still always feel like I can spread my arms out and feel the walls of the thing. The novel feels like walking into a big dark cave (echo-o-o!) where you have to do these resonance tests to even guess at its extremities and ceilings.

I really appreciated hearing about how you novelists navigate your own cave systems. I’m glad there’s a lantern aha! moment ahead, when you figure shit out. At what stage in the drafting process did your headlamps come on? I’ve had that “gel experience” that Elisa and Aaron talked about with stories, but the novel I’m working on actually feels like a million little puddles that refuse to coalesce. A few people mentioned outlines, and I wonder what your own outlines look like? That’s a new idea to me, after writing only stories. How specific do you get and how much forecasting do you do? Do the outlines change wildly on you?

Re: today’s question; what a good one, Elisa! It’s something that I thought about a lot in my MFA program. I think it’s a dangerous myth to equate compulsions, addictions, and asocial tendencies with literary genius. I mean, I think that authors like Hemingway and Virginia Woolf wrote their masterpieces in spite of and not because of their alcoholism/depression. I’d like to believe that whatever wound-up darkness compelled Woolf to fill her pockets with stones and head for the river was not the same creative force that called forth The Waves. And two of my favorite writers, Kelly Link and George Saunders, are both happily married and incredibly kind, which gives me hope.

That said—and Elisa can maybe agree or disagree with me on this—there are some similarities in the “submerged geometry” of certain writers and professors that I know from the MFA program. Aside from the economic stuff, I often feel like writers, for whatever reason, often share certain traits. There’s this Didion quote about children who grow up to be writers that I like a lot: “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” So while I don’t feel like writers have to be tormented booze-aholics, I sort of loathe the premium that our culture places on tragic backstories, that one-to-one correspondence of art and biography. I guess I think that most writers I know tend toward reflection and anxiety, a stop-time impulse to get experience on a page. I at least sometimes feel more comfortable in the safe intimacy of other writers’ imaginary worlds than this real one.

Phew! Sorry, folks, I got a little carried away. Somebody else’s turn to make sweeping generalizations about writers…

From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Time to get high, cut myself

Omigod, Karen! I love that Didion quote. I used to cover the walls of my teenage bedroom with black-sharpie-rendered quotes (Ani DiFranco, anyone?), and that one was central. (How’s that for dark and deviant, eh? Combat boots, a belly-button piercing, and obsessive quote-collecting!) Aaron, props to Fran Lebowitz, but had I been popular in high school there’s no way I’d have become a writer. My personal writer seed germinated over several lonely nights driving around in my 1984 Volvo station wagon blasting Counting Crows and weeping. Granted, unhappiness itself does not a creative-type make, but without the unhappiness springboard, how would the process begin?

Re: Woolf, Hemmingway, Carver, et al., I agree that they did their amazing work in spite of their troubles, but also because of their troubles.

OK, I so clearly had an agenda with this question. Sorry. I shouldn’t have feigned curious neutrality. My bad. Now I will go get high and cut myself.

Next round: "What’s the most upsetting thing anyone’s every written or said about your work?"


Do: Writing as catharsis, or a trade like any other? High school malcontents kill presidents, too. What's your take: do great writers need to be fucked up human beings? Comment below. Read: Christopher Lehmann-Haupt says, "[I]t isn't that writing causes drinking or even that drinking causes writing." So what does?


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